A little support can be a good thing. You may have a steady hand, a firm grip, and phenomenal handholding technique, but at 1/10 of a second, even a neurosurgeon would start to notice a bit of camera shake in their photos. Given the myriad uses of long shutter speeds (low light, motion capture, fireworks, and the like), and given also that the image stabilization built into many cameras and lenses is only useful up to a certain point, a decent tripod or monopod is an essential in every photographer’s kit. Which is right for you? Or should you just spring for both? Let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of each so you can make an informed decision.*
Since most people think “tripod” when they think about camera support, let’s talk about those first. For something so simple – three legs and a spot at the top for your camera – there are oodles (metric) of options out there, including aluminum, wood, and carbon fiber, and scads of options for the head of the tripod. Pricing is similarly varied, with a basic tripod costing about twenty bucks at one end of the spectrum, and a carbon fiber model with a really good ball head going for several hundred. Things to look for:
• Construction: Regardless of cost, does it feel solid? Be aware of the amount of weight you’ll be putting on the tripod (the weight of your body and your heaviest lens), and be sure it can handle it. Pay attention also to the quality of the leg locks (the parts that keep the legs in place when they’re extended), the center column lock, and the quality/type of feet (rubber feet are a must for indoor shooting, but spiked feet are generally more useful outdoors).
• Height: Make sure that the tripod’s center column extends to a height that’s correct for your line of sight. Stooping gets uncomfortable very quickly. Likewise, if you often shoot lower to the ground (especially useful with wildlife, though there are other reasons to do this as well), you’re going to want to make sure the legs will splay far enough apart, and the center column will get low enough, to allow you to shoot from that angle but remain stable.
• Weight: You want something that’s lightweight, since your kit gets heavy after you’ve been schlepping it for a few hours, but not so light that it’s unstable. For example, if you’re shooting in a high wind (or if, like me, you’re a bit clumsy), will the tripod stay upright when it takes a knock, or might it topple over? Don’t forget that some lenses (the average 70-300, to say nothing of a fast 70-200) are not only a bit heavy, they’re also just long enough to be a bit of a pain in the ass, and they don’t always come with tripod collars, so the weight distribution/center of gravity can be a bit askew. Sometimes, a heavier tripod is a necessary evil.
• Load Capacity: This isn’t the weight of the tripod; rather, it’s how much weight you can pile on it without something breaking. Your tripod (and head, if applicable) should be rated for more weight than you’re going to be putting on it.
• Quick release plate: most tripods have these; it’s a plate that attaches to the tripod thread on your camera that can be popped easily on or off the tripod head. Check to see how easily it releases; too easy and your camera may well come off when it’s not supposed to, but if it doesn’t come off easily enough, you could find yourself cursing a blue streak if you need to get it off quickly.
• Range of motion: Can you easily reorient the camera, whether to change from portrait to landscape orientation, to tilt/pan, or to shoot at different angles (especially if you’re looking to shoot downward from a high angle)? This is where the tripod’s head comes into play. Some tripods come with the head permanently attached to the body, while on others the legs can accommodate different heads. There are several different head options, and if you think the available options may not work for you, try something different.
Monopods don’t provide the same degree of stability as tripods, but they’re still very useful. Like their larger cousins, they come in a number of shapes and sizes, and over a pretty wide price range. They come in handy because of their lighter weight, greater portability, and the fact that they can double as a walking stick if you’re on a hike (or a defensive weapon if you’re in a dodgy area). They’re also allowed in places where tripods aren’t; many museums, for instance, frown upon tripods, but will allow the use of monopods. Here, as with tripods, check for the height, load-bearing ability and overall construction. Also pay attention to how you’re holding your camera. A common misconception about monopods is that you should stand as though you and the monopod make up three legs of a tripod. In actuality, you’re better off keeping the monopod close to your body, and using a good handholding technique, as this will be more stable.
So, what to buy? Find a middle ground you can live with. On one hand, putting a heavy and expensive SLR on a ten dollar tripod meant for a point-and-shoot probably isn’t a good idea (all that’s standing between your SLR and the concrete is ten bucks’ worth of spindly aluminum). On the other, however, I don’t necessarily agree with people who insist that the only way to go is spending $500 on a carbon fiber tripod and another $500 on a ball head, with the reasoning that “you’re going to need it sooner or later anyway.”** Get as much tripod (or monopod, or both) as you need, spend wisely, and don’t worry if the guy next to you in the photographer’s vest with two SLR’s around his neck looks at you funny (and nobody wearing a photographer’s vest has the right to look at anyone funny, incidentally). You can get a serviceable monopod for as little as $15, and a good tripod for between $100 and $200. If you find yourself needing something more expensive later, you can always unload the older gear on Craigslist or eBay.
One last thought in closing: There are hundreds of tripods, monopods, and heads available for sale online. Besides the fact that I’d urge you to support your local shop just on general principle, tripods are one thing you really need to get your hands on in order to make an intelligent decision. Getting your hands, and your gear, on a tripod is the best, if not only, way to make an informed choice. No matter how many five star reviews something has, what works for one person may not be right for you; besides, you can’t kick the tires over broadband.
*Other, more specialized, types of photography may call for specialized supports; macro photographers find focusing rails a godsend, while many dedicated videographers who use DSLR’s wouldn’t be caught dead without a steadicam rig. Those systems, and others, are worth considering depending on your niche, but I’m limiting myself to general purpose solutions here.
**Having said that, I owe it to you to offer a differing point of view, courtesy of Thom Hogan. His argument’s sound; the issue, in my opinion, is how much and how often you’re going to need that tripod, not to mention the cost. Bottom line: put at least as much thought into support –what you want, what you’re willing to spend, and what that’s going to mean for you over the long run – as you would into buying a body or lens. It has the potential to have as much impact on your photography as either of those things, not to mention the fact that the right tripod will be with you at least as long as your lenses.